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Fans flock to area for Biggest Week in American Birding

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    Enthusiasts watch for migrating birds at a Biggest Week in American Birding event at Magee Marsh on Lake Erie, north of Oak Harbor, Ohio. The area is considered a prime stopover for warblers making their spring migration north.

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    Dylan Vasapolli, from South Africa, points out a bird to Nancy Pounds, left, of Medina, Ohio, during a Biggest Week in American Birding event at Magee Marsh. Ten days of walks and programs continue through May 17.

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Enthusiasts watch for migrating birds at a Biggest Week in American Birding event at Magee Marsh on Lake Erie, north of Oak Harbor, Ohio. The area is considered a prime stopover for warblers making their spring migration north.

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Nine months after toxic algae sullied the Toledo area’s reputation, the National Audubon Society is designating Lake Erie’s western and central basins as two of Earth’s most significant ecosystems.

Gary Langham, the society’s chief scientist, announced the decision at Friday’s kickoff for the Biggest Week in American Birding. 

He told hundreds of birders at the Maumee Bay Lodge and Conference Center in Oregon that the society’s board has voted to designate the islands and shoreline in those basins as “globally important bird areas” and plans to make a formal announcement soon.

The Biggest Week in American Birding, a 10-day birding festival from Lucas to Lorain counties, is expected to draw 80,000 binocular-toting visitors through May 17.

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here for more photos from Magee Marsh 

Last year’s festival drew 75,000 bird lovers from 45 states and 22 countries, infusing the region with an estimated $37 million, said Kimberly Kaufman, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s executive director.

n7look-1

Dylan Vasapolli, from South Africa, points out a bird to Nancy Pounds, left, of Medina, Ohio, during a Biggest Week in American Birding event at Magee Marsh. Ten days of walks and programs continue through May 17.

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Enlarge | Buy This Image

“It’s amazing to see how many more people are here already,” Ms. Kaufman said. “There’s a real positive vibe and the festival really enhances that.”

While the National Audubon Society’s designation carries no enforcement power, it sends a message to regulators, planners, and would-be developers that some of the Lake Erie region’s last remaining natural areas offer distinctive birding habitats.

Those include the Oak Openings region of western Lucas, Fulton, and Henry counties, as well as the fabled Ottawa and Erie county marshes.

“It means this place is one of the key ones to protect across the planet,” Mr. Langham said.

He said the Biggest Week in American Birding — which has grown in leaps and bounds since its start just six years ago — is an “incredibly impressive” display of ecotourism, business, and outdoor education.

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“It shows how birds and business can go hand-in-hand,” Mr. Langham said. “It’s a great illustration of the power of birds and people.”

The festival is a labor of love masterminded by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, one of northwest Ohio’s largest birding groups, to celebrate the peak of spring migration. Birds flock to the shoreline while humans flock to prime viewing areas, such as the 3,700-foot boardwalk at Magee Marsh.

Throughout the 10 days, those who register for the festival — the cost is $20 for members and $35 for nonmembers — can do daily hikes with expert birders, attend lectures, see birding demonstrations, and visit displays. Free food is provided at nightly receptions. Numerous businesses offer discounts, with several communities hanging signs that state “Welcome Birders.”

Sonja Jasovsky, 65, and her husband Paul, 64, are among first-time visitors this year.

They said they visited Magee Marsh a year ago and were stunned by the colorful display of tiny warblers and songbirds migrating north from Central and South America, resting up along the shoreline before continuing their arduous flight across Lake Erie.

“Almost every bird I saw was one I’d never seen before,” Ms. Jasovsky, a retired elementary school teacher, said of last year’s visit.

The couple are camping six nights at Maumee Bay State Park after a five-hour trip from their home in Albany, Ohio, near Athens, Mr. Jasovsky said.

“It’s really neat to see the cross-section of people here,” his wife said, noting how the festival appeals to people from all age groups and walks of life.

The Biggest Week in Birding began with a focus on Magee Marsh, Metzger Marsh, and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Ohio ranks second only to California in historic wetland losses, with much of the most valuable remaining acreage in Ottawa County.

Richard Nachazel, Destination Toledo’s president, said he’s pleased the festival has expanded to include the Oak Openings region, a globally rare area that likewise has lost acreage to development but remains the site of more globally rare plants and animals than any other in Ohio.

“These folks all have a commitment to natural resources,” agreed Mr. Nachazel’s Ottawa County counterpart, Larry Fletcher, executive director of the Lake Erie Shores & Islands West in Port Clinton.

Ms. Kaufman was presented the American Birding Association’s prestigious Chandler Robbins Award for Education/​Conservation at Friday night’s reception by that group’s president, Jeffrey Gordon.

On its website, the Chandler Robbins Award is listed second behind the Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievements in promoting birding.

Kim’s husband, Kenn Kaufman, an internationally known birder, author, artist, and conservationist, received the Roger Tory Peterson Award in 2008 and the Ludlow Griscom Award for outstanding contributions to regional ornithology in 1992. He has been with the American Birding Association since its inception in 1972.

“She probably, more than anything, leads from the heart,” Mr. Gordon said of Ms. Kaufman, citing her work with tracking wind-energy projects that could hurt birds, as well as her ability to organize support for birds and rally the business community. 

“Kim really stands as a giant, an inspiration to many of us.”

Ms. Kaufman said it’s “such an amazing thing” to be associated with the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a group she says goes “beyond a level of dedication.”

The group now has some 270 volunteers helping it put on the Biggest Week in American Birding, she said.

“It didn’t just happen by accident,” Ms. Kaufman said. “We always believed it’s what it could become.”

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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